Shi Meiyin says she could never have achieved so much without the help of her school and her teachers.
The second prize winner of Shanghai High School Composition Contest is applying to enter the Peking University, one of the country's most prestigious universities, in the upcoming college entrance examination this June.
Like every other student in Shanghai Jiulong Model Middle School, Shi's family is poor.
Located in northern Shanghai's Zhabei District, the school is the only one in the city that provides students with free education.
"Our purpose is to help those students who are eager to learn, but whose families might not be able to afford higher and higher education fees," said headmaster Gu Xiaopu.
There are 889 students from every part of the city taking full-time classes. All the students were selected from applicants whose families are under the city's poverty line.
The school omits all education fees including books, uniform fees, lunch fees as well as extracurricular activity fees.
There are also free school buses for students who live far away and various scholarships specially designed for those in need of encouragement.
Shanghai Jiulong Model Middle School's funding comes mainly from the district government, but it also gets private donations from both individuals and companies.
Xu Kuangdi, former mayor of Shanghai, is said to donate 20,000 yuan (US$2,416) to the school each year.
"I love the school, the teachers and my schoolmates here," Shi said. "Unlike my former school, everyone in Jiulong studies very hard and is willing to help others."
According to Gu, because of their family background, students in the school all realize the precious opportunity and want to take full advantage of the chance they are being given.
"When I came to the school, I was very much surprised as during the class breaks, the corridors were so quiet. You could not find anyone relaxing outside the classroom," Gu said.
"Everyone was using the 10 minute period to read more books. There were even students who were reading books while waiting in line at the canteen."
However, the headmaster and teachers thought it wasn't the right way, or the best way, for students to learn.
"They are still teenagers after all," said the headmaster.
"They should not be studying under that much heavy pressure and burdens."
Since the current semester started, Tuesday afternoons have been designated "happy hours."
The school has organized a total of 24 hobby groups covering arts, science and sports. Each student can participate in whichever activity they want.
"Everyone in the school is happy," said Zhu Jiwang, one of the school's teachers. "They study hard and play hard."
The school has also set every Friday afternoon as the students' "thanksgiving time."
Students go to nearby neighborhoods, book stores, libraries, senior's homes and kindergartens to help others.
"The students have received love and care from society," Gu said. "As a return, we ask them to show their thanks to society."
Several students have given more than the school has asked.
Sun Yueli, a grade 10 student, has volunteered to teach a disabled student in his neighborhood every Saturday for nearly three years.
"My father happened to die soon after I started going to this school," Sun said. "It was the teachers here that tried to comfort me and help me out.
"We still have a long way to go," Gu said. "However, with the help from society and countless individuals, we have full confidence in the future."
(eastday.com March 29, 2004)